You Too Can be House Two
In case you were not in attendance last Friday at the hellscape that was odd and inconsistent procedures, party busses of Nazis, and assault rifles with fingers on the trigger, all mixed in with some actual testimony and attempts at good policy at the Unicameral, read ahead for a full blow-by-blow. If you need to save the full details for another time, know this: showing up is important, having your voice heard is important, and calling out white supremacy whenever you see it is important. It’s reasonable to want dangerous people not to have access to firearms and it’s reasonable to discuss and disagree on serious policy matters. It’s unreasonable to use threats of violence and intimidation as a means to get your point across.
Nebraska’s state government has a unique structure in that there is one house of senators and no established second house. Instead, the nation’s only unicameral was meant to involve the people of the state as the second house, and indeed has had a long tradition of relatively transparent government and a simple legislative process to allow public involvement. This means that anyone who is able to attend a committee hearing on a bill of importance to them should speak in person or, if unable to attend, send written testimony to the committee. It’s our job as the second house! Seeing Red has already published an extensive guide on how to testify at the Unicameral, but maybe you are still intimidated. Honestly, I was too. I’ve spoken at the Lincoln School Board and the Lincoln City Council, but this was state government and for some reason, it felt harder. But, we can do hard things. Especially hard things that matter.
And state policy matters. It matters so much more to our daily quality of life than most of what happens in that city on the Potomac.
I went to my first hearing this month to testify in favor of two bills – one that would prohibit domestic abusers from possessing firearms and the other that would strengthen the handgun purchase permit process in Nebraska.
As my dad always used to say, “go big or go home,” and I couldn’t have picked a more wild and atypical day to show up for my first testimony. The halls were packed, mostly with men wearing camouflage and matching t-shirts. I later learned that the t-shirts were provided by a gun store who rented party busses to bring these people in and were hosting a BBQ and “shoot out” later. Aha! Paid lobbyists.
Capitol security made proponents and opponents split into two holding pens outside the hearing room so that we could be admitted five at a time by side. Signs were prohibited from entering the room, though it was acceptable to wear stickers, buttons, hats, or t-shirts with your position. Due to some asinine bits of Nebraska law, loaded assault rifles were also permitted into the chamber as long as they were carried out in the open. And they were. They were brandished by individuals claiming to be a part of the “boogaloo,” a group advocating for a second Civil War. (I’m ashamed to admit I spent my normally peaceful coffee time looking into these folks on Saturday, but it was a rabbit hole I couldn’t escape.)
The room was packed and there were also full overflow rooms and the hallway. Capitol security remained firmly planted by the door and did not circulate throughout the room. It took a couple of days for me to fully process how quickly that situation could have become dangerous and even deadly. Loaded ARs, 200 people packed in a room, and two security hanging near the door.
The first two bills of the afternoon were heard very quickly, and in normal fashion – introducing senator, 3-minute testimonies by proponents, opponents, and neutral testifiers, closing by the senator. Questions were asked and each was closed. The third bill on the docket was Senator Cavanaugh’s bill to disarm domestic abusers. I did my first three minutes and got the jitters out. No questions from the senators and back to my seat to review my planned remarks for the next bill. One opposition testifier was David Pringle. He said he was here with “a few of his friends” and it became clear that he was the one who had bussed them in. He made what I actually thought was a strong case for gun control, stating that there were issues with the purchase permit process and he believed responsible gun dealers were doing more than was legally required right now to ensure that prohibited persons were not purchasing firearms. Sen. Cavanaugh closed and that bill was done.
As people were clearing out from the first three bills, someone entered the chamber with a 5-foot-tall sign with a picture of an assault rifle and the U.S. Constitution on it. The gun control advocate near me who had had their sign confiscated went out to retrieve theirs. Capitol security told them they could have it as long as it rested on the ground and that he couldn’t control the fact that the human-sized sign was very visible and the smaller placard was not. It seems that the rule on signs is inconsistent, at best.
Then things got even stranger. Sen. Lathrop, the committee chair, asked for a show of hands as to who was going to be testifying on Senator McCollister’s bill to reduce suicide by strengthening the handgun purchase permit process. This was what the busses had come for. It was clear that the committee was uninterested in hearing testimony all day and into the evening, so Sen. Lathrop said he was going to limit the testimony. He addressed Mr. Pringle directly, asking if those with the hands raised were “his friends” and said he couldn’t give all of them the full three minutes and he would need to cut it to a minute and a half apiece. Mr. Pringle said that seemed fair. The negotiations continued for about four minutes as they counted up testifiers. Someone asked if the time could be extended to two minutes apiece and the chairman said he could not but if they wanted to choose 20 people to speak for all of them, they could have the full three minutes. Some of Mr. Pringle’s friends offered to donate their time to him. Finally, Sen. Lathrop announced that all testifiers would have a minute and a half.
This all seemed very unorthodox. I have been to long public hearings before and this was the public’s chance to speak. Sometimes that means legislating into the evening. I expected that to be the case. What I wasn’t expecting was for a committee chair to negotiate with the leader of the bill opposition right there in the hearing room. But here we were. I had carefully planned for three minutes, but a quick pivot was needed. I worked to cut bits from my testimony and weave together a 90 second soundbite. Folks around me began coordinating their 90 seconds so that all the salient points could be made. And then testimony began.
One of the opponents to the bill yelled out during Sen. McCollister’s introduction of the bill that he wanted to ask questions of the senator. He had to be silenced.
I said my bit in a big, fat rush, and returned to my seat to listen to the rest of the proponents. Some of the testifiers pointed out that we would be hearing again from Mr. Pringle, and that the senators should be aware that the person orchestrating the lobby for this day was a confirmed neo-Nazi. They were reading from published newspaper articles. Another one of his “friends” yelled out and disrupted the hearing. He was silenced and Capitol security needed to come over to calm him down, but he was not asked to leave. Sen. Slama then spoke and said that discussing a person’s character was irrelevant and that all testimony should be relevant to the issue at hand. Sen. Lathrop corrected her and educated the gallery that, in fact, this was the time for the people to speak and that it was not up to the committee to decide what was relevant for the individuals testifying. Sen. Slama then left the committee room and did not return until all proponents were finished testifying.
Because of the crowds, after all the proponents were done testifying, most of us cleared out of the chamber. We later viewed Sen. Slama asking Mr. Pringle if he would like to defend himself against personal attacks and he confirmed his white supremacist views, saying he loves his race above all other races. Those of us who have spent time involved in the gun violence prevention movement know that gun culture and white supremacy are inextricably linked, and this man proved it.
My first day in the legislature was an eventful one. It won’t be my last, but it may end up proving to be the most interesting. Legislature is short. The work of each session is done in either 60 or 90 working days each year. So, my challenge to you is this: take the minutes or hours you would have invested in Washington outrage and invest them in ONE policy that matters to you. Do you care about education or sexual assault survivors or cosmetologists? Are you an expert firearms or broadband internet or flood control? Whatever it is, find your ONE. (And yes, bills on all of these things were introduced this session.) Read the bill and form three minutes of an opinion, take the day off of work, find some childcare or bring your kiddo to the Capitol, and participate in governance that will have an effect on your daily life.
Look, it’s the job of the public to speak about things that are important to them. Someone will speak. So why not let it be you? Because if it’s not you, who will provide an alternative to the men in matching t-shirts, funded by a literal Nazi, and party-bussed in for the occasion?